I was sitting in the restaurant leaning over a fresh steaming bowl of French onion soup. The small round of toasted pumpernickel floated under a layer of melted Provolone and the aroma of caramelized onions, beef stock, and a touch of sherry wafted up to tease my nose. The outside air was cold and wet with drenching showers, and my glasses hadn’t warmed up yet, so as I sat huddled over my soup, the glasses quickly fogged over.
Déjà vu. Now I was transported back to 1977.
A cold, damp evening in Edinburgh, Scotland, after a day of sightseeing. My wife Kate and I had toured Holyrood Palace at the foot of the Royal Mile then walked Edinburgh Castle at the other end. Somewhere in between was a men’s store where I had purchased my Inverness cape and deerstalker cap. We had parked the car and at dinner time before heading back to the bed and breakfast, we walked into a bustling fish and chips shop. It was a madhouse of customers and clerks shouting orders and handing over greasy bags of food. When it became our time, I ordered chicken and chips. The clerk asked me a question, but the Scottish burr there is so clipped I couldn’t understand him. I said, “Sorry?” He asked again. I still didn’t understand. He asked again and I shrugged my shoulders. Someone behind me patiently translated – the clerk wanted to know if I wanted vinegar for the chips. “No, thank you.” We received our order, negotiated the local currency, and walked the food back to the parked car, where we ate.
Night was falling. Raindrops dotted the windows and cold descended. You could see our breath as we talked. There in the cold, huddled over our warm, deep-fried meals, we smelled the aroma of a steaming meal and ate. Inside the car, the windows fogged over.
Back to present. In a moment of reverie, I recalled the joy of that impromptu meal. Simple, plain, foreign and yet familiar at the same time. The language had been the same and yet there were times we couldn’t quite make out the words – even during the palace tour, there were times we couldn’t make out what the guide was saying. It was a foreign experience. So now, too, French onion soup is a familiar food but made differently by different chefs can be a new experience. Yet, tasting it can take you back to other times you’ve experienced it. “Déjà vu all over again,” as Yogi Berra once so well said.
Experiences can fog the lens of time to take us back to places we’ve been before. Sometimes it’s something as simple as a smell or feel. Sometimes it’s an effect like the sweating of glass. A sight, a smell, a sound – always a sense. We’ve been there before: Déjà vu.
The phone rang. It was my wife, finished with her appointment next door. My reverie was broken and I made the return trip back.